Nothing Says Spring Like Fresh, Wild Greens

When I was a kid growing up in rural Muskoka we strived to be as self-sufficient as possible, not only because my grandparents enjoyed growing and gathering their own foods, but also out of necessity. In those days, trips to the grocery (and drug store) in town were few and far between!

So a few years ago when I first caught wind of the fashionable new “100-Mile Diet,” I was proud to say we were living the lifestyle long before it came into vogue. The only difference being the radius – our food came from within a much smaller circle!

Today, I still enjoy cooking and serving as much locally grown food as possible, which is why our spring woodlands are my favourite “shopping” grounds. After dining all winter on store-bought produce, nothing tastes better to me than a wild spring treat served on the same day it was gathered.

Since grandma was a well-respected herbalist, I also learned how to use wild plants for good health and well-being. I still take pride and pleasure in harvesting wilderness plants for the table and I still rely upon many of grandma’s old recipes to put them to good use. And, of course, I’ve developed a few of my own family favourites, too.

Below are some of the first plants that come up in spring which make fine picks for the pot. So get out the baskets, gather the family, and work up an appetite for a wild and wonderful feast.

Stinging Nettles

Stinging Nettles

Grandma has it written that a cup of stinging nettle tea, rich in calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, phosphorous, iodine, and sulfur, as well as tannin, beta-carotene, and amino acids, is a top spring tonic – good for flushing accumulations of winter impurities from the system. Stinging nettles make a pleasant cup of tea, whether steeped from fresh picked leaves or those that have been dried especially for the pot.

To dry nettle leaves, simply cut or break off the stalks near the ground, tie them into bundles, and hang upside down from the attic ceiling or in a warm place to dry until the leaves are crispy. Unstring, crush, store in a tea tin, and you can reap the healthful benefits of this satisfying tea all year round!

Not only are nettles useful for cleansing the bladder and kidneys, they can also play a role in the herbal treatment of gout, goiter, anemia, thin blood, epilepsy, poor circulation, depression, pinworms, and more. Being rich in vitamin C and B complex, it’s no wonder grandma also praised them as a gentle cure for colds and flu!

Grandma’s old journals recorded descriptions of many plants as being as good for satisfying the appetite as they are for cleansing and soothing the body and soul.

Stinging Nettle and Chickpea Lasagna
Yes, you can easily identify stinging nettles by their nasty little sting, but if you wear gloves you’ll have no problem filling the baskets. Aside from steeping the leaves into tea, which is a good cleansing tonic for the body, stinging nettles are delicious cooked as a potherb or used in place of spinach in this savoury meatless lasagna recipe. Grandma made her noodle dough out of stone-ground wheat but I have updated the recipe to use noodles made from kamut, an ancient grain that is closely related to durum wheat but is reputedly more nutritious than traditional wheat flours.

If you want to try something super “light, bright, and springy,” use sliced zucchini in place of noodles. The stinging nettles will still be in fine form by the time the season’s first offerings of zucchini begin to appear in the garden or at the farmers’ markets. (Serves 6.)

6 to 8 cups stinging nettles
3 tsp olive oil
1 minced onion
1 minced sweet red pepper
5 cloves minced garlic
2 cups chopped cooked chickpeas
1 cup grated mozzarella cheese
2 cups ricotta or cottage cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon Italian dried herb mixture (or pinch each of dried oregano, basil, thyme, and parsley)
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
2 cups tomato sauce (or canned spaghetti sauce, in which case you can omit the herbs)
Kamut or spelt noodles (or sliced zucchini)

Steam nettles until tender. Drain, chop, and set aside. Heat the oil in skillet and sauté onion, pepper, and garlic until soft. Combine with nettles, chickpeas, ricotta, and ½ cup of the mozzarella cheese. Add seasoning.
Put 1 cup tomato sauce in bottom of lasagna-sized baking dish. Place a layer of noodles or zucchini on the sauce. Cover with a layer of nettle-chickpea mixture. Repeat two or three times in order to use all the mixture. Cover with remaining tomato sauce, sprinkle with mozzarella and parmesan cheeses.
Bake in 350°F oven for 35 minutes.

Dandelion

Dandelion LeavesAnother highly praised spring pick is the dandelion. Considered by most lawn lovers as a nuisance, dandelion is appreciated by wild food connoisseurs –  not only as a delicious, readily available salad green and potherb, but also as a proven tonic for cleansing the liver (just like stinging nettles).

Dandelion Supper Soup
Here’s a hearty soup that fills the belly after gathering your woodland fare. Serve it as a first course or load up the bread basket and call it the “full meal deal.”

4 cups dandelion leaves
4 Tbsp olive oil
4 cloves minced garlic
1 minced onion
3 chopped potatoes
3 cups vegetable broth
2 cups milk (low fat or soy milk works great)
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a soup pot, sauté garlic and onions until soft. Add potatoes, vegetable broth, and dandelion leaves. Simmer, covered, for 15 minutes or until potatoes are soft. Remove from heat. Purée the mixture in batches using a blender. (Grandma forced hers through a sieve, but the blender makes a smoother soup.)

Return mixture to pan. Add milk and seasonings and heat through. A dandelion flower plucked of its yellow petals makes a pretty scatter for the top of the soup.

Greek Dandelion Salad
Dandelions are always delicious in the salad bowl – you can simply toss them with any “house” dressing, or make them into traditional salads such as a Caesar or Waldorf, or go Greek as I have done with this favourite recipe.  (Serves 6.)

Greek Dandelion Salad

Greek Dandelion Salad

Salad
6 cups torn dandelion leaves
1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, sliced in halves
½ cup pitted sliced black olives
1 cup chopped peppers (red, yellow, and/or green)
1 red onion cut into thin slices and separated into rings
1 cup crumbled feta cheese

Dressing
4 Tbsp virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
2 Tbsp liquid honey
2 tsp fresh chopped oregano (or dried herb)
Salt and pepper to taste

Put salad ingredients in bowl, scatter with feta cheese.
Mix dressing ingredients separately. Pour dressing over salad and toss.

Cattails

CattailsCattails are tall, reedy, marsh plants found growing all over Ontario. In the spring, the “tails” of the cattail are tender and green, resembling little ears of baby corn. They can be harvested for table fare until the spikes turn into fuzzy tails (at which point the pollen is ready to collect and can be mixed with ground grains and used as a nutritional additive to baked goods or as a thickening agent for soups and stews). The young cattail corns  – or cattail “corms” as I knew them – are delicious when steamed and eaten in place of asparagus. Like grandma, I enjoy them served with a drizzle of garlic-infused olive oil. To harvest, break the tip off near the head of the stalk. You won’t need many; I find that two or three tips make a tasty serving, leaving plenty behind for ripening.

Grandma always joked that eating cattails made you as frisky as a cat! On the more medicinally serious side, she wrote that a poultice made from bruised cattail roots is good for drawing infection from sores and wounds, and ash collected from burnt leaves can be used as an antiseptic.

Cattail Shoot Soup
This is a refreshingly light, bright soup that has a hint of fragrant curry.  (Serves 4 to 6.)

Cooked Cattails

Cooked Cattails

About 8 to 10 cattail shoots cut into thin rings
4 Tbsp olive oil
1 minced onion
3 cloves minced garlic
3 Tbsp finely diced celery
1-½ Tbsp curry powder (I use my own homemade blend which is slightly pungent, but you can use your favourite curry powder to suit taste)
3 Tbsp thickener (I use cattail pollen saved from the previous harvesting season but any starchy thickener will do)
4 cups homemade vegetable broth (I make my own vegetable stock by saving scraps in my crisper until I have enough accumulated to simmer into a rich stock for soup but you can use store-bought vegetable, chicken or other stock of choice)

Heat the oil in soup pot, sauté onion, garlic, and celery until soft. Sprinkle with curry powder and thickener, cook until absorbed. Add stock and cook, stirring constantly, until bottom is loosened.  Add cattail shoots. Bring to boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
A dab of plain yogurt can be added to the soup upon serving, if you wish.

Asparagus

When it comes to asparagus, nothing tastes more like spring than biting into a delectable green spear. And according to grandma’s journals, asparagus does the body good after a long winter of missing out on “fresh plucked greenery.” Asparagus helps flush impurities from the body which tend to build up over the cold weather months. Modern-day herbalists call this “detoxifying” the system.

She also has it noted that asparagus keeps the heart healthy and bones strong. I don’t know if grandma was joking but she even claimed that asparagus tea keeps the skin looking young and healthy. Like her, I make tea by using the thick ends of the stalks (the pieces that normally get discarded as they are too tough to eat). Simply put these pieces into a saucepan, cover with water and simmer until all the goodness has been leached from the ends. Strain into a teacup and smile while drinking. “Guaranteed,” so grandma would wink, “to get rid of wrinkles around the eyes and put colour in your cheeks.”

Rich in protein, B vitamins, and potassium, asparagus is valued for its role in prevention of various cancers, especially those of the stomach and bowels. It also helps to reduce the risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and birth defects. Adding asparagus to one’s diet can help reduce pain and inflammation, and it’s even purported to have aphrodisiac properties.

Asparagus and Chicken Supper Wraps
When I was a girl,  grandma and I would eagerly make our way to an old grown-in homestead every spring where asparagus flourished wild and free in the same spot that was once, years ago, the family garden! For those who are not lucky enough to have a hidden “wild” asparagus patch, spears purchased at the farmers’ market will certainly do.
(Serves 4.)

4 large tortilla wraps
½ cup softened cream cheese
½ cup minced chives or finely sliced green onions
2 cooked skinless, boneless, organic chicken breasts
8 steamed asparagus spears
½ cup grated cheddar cheese

Mix cream cheese with chives, divide and spread evenly over tortilla wraps.
Slice chicken breasts into 4 thin strips. Place chicken and asparagus on wrap. Scatter cheese over top. Roll up jelly-roll fashion, tucking ends under and place seam down on baking sheet.
Bake in 350°F oven until rolls are crispy and golden, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Crispy Roasted Asparagus Fingers (From Vitality’s Archives)
Recipe by Pat Crocker

Roasting brings out the sweet, nutty flavour of asparagus and crisps the outside – leaving the spears perfect for dipping. (Makes 4 servings)

2 lb fresh asparagus
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and ground pepper

Wash and trim asparagus and place on lightly oiled baking sheet.
In a small bowl, combine garlic and olive oil. Brush over spears. Sprinkle spears with salt and pepper to taste. Roast for 10 to 12 minutes in a 400°F oven, or until spears are tender-crisp and browned on the outside.

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